And so it begins again. On Monday, the latest edition of the Minnesota Timberwolves assembled as a group for the first time, donned their uniforms, and went through their paces — photographs, interviews, promo spots — as part of the annual Media Day ritual.
For the players — and for general manager Milt Newton and interim head coach Sam Mitchell, both expanding their roles as Flip Saunders battles cancer — it is a chance to acclimate to the pressure cooker of what will be a competitive environment over the next six or seven months (or longer, if these Wolves make the playoffs for the first time since 2003).
For scribes like me, Media Day is a tidy smorgasbord of first impressions, a chance to check out muscle definitions and mental demeanors, parse the verbal cues and clues, and start a new file for the 2015-16 season. Beginning with Newton and Mitchell and then moving steadily through the roster, the stars, scrubs, vets and newbies each took their place at the head table in the media room at Target Center on Monday and fielded questions for 5-to-15 minutes.
What follows are the things that stood out for me during this round, in the context of some of larger questions facing the Wolves during the 2015-16 campaign.
Once again, the Wolves do not seem poised to aggressively utilize the three-point shot this season.
Mitchell’s approach to the three-pointer sounded very similar to Saunders a year ago. “You have to earn the right to shoot threes,” he said of the players. His criteria for that earning process includes a willingness to work on it until it is a very accurate shot in practice. But even then, he stressed that “There’s not a lot of plays you can run to get open threes; they have to come in flow.”
Apparently the idea having a player almost always situated behind the arc as a normal course of a half-court set remains alien to the Wolves playbook. Obviously as the set unfolds and the defense reacts, the identity and location of that three-point shooter would change. But having that credible threat naturally creates more spacing for cuts, pick-and-rolls and dribble penetration.
In that sense, nearly all the plays you run could result in open threes, precisely because they are created in the flow of the action. But for that to happen, the Wolves have to join the majority of NBA teams and establish it as a standard part of the arsenal. And that can’t succeed unless you allow players the chance to develop that aspect of their offense in game situations, without fear of penalty.
Player attitudes on the importance of the three varied. Asked if his work with shooting coach Mike Penberthy (who is not on staff but will continue to meet intermittently with some players) will feature less midrange and more three-pointers this season, Ricky Rubio replied, “Well, midrange is the key for point guard right now. And I think playing the pick and roll and having a midrange makes you a good spot in the mix. But of course the three point shot is a key I have to improve, and finishing around the rim. But I have been talking to Mike and midrange is the key to the game right now.”
For the record, Rubio excelled at the midrange last season, dramatically exceeding his previous career highs in the relative frequency and accuracy of his shot from 16 feet out to the three-point arc. But his total shooting percentage was a career low due to his inability to nail three pointers or finish at the rim often enough.
Not surprisingly, the wing players were all in favor more three-pointers in the mix. Both Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad revealed that they had been working diligently to improve that aspect of their offense. Damjan Rudez, the 6-10 Croatian combo forward acquired from Indiana for Chase Budinger, was impressively self-aware and well-spoken while making his case for minutes as a three-point specialist.
By dint of his experience and track record as a marksman, veteran Kevin Martin had the authority to expand the subject beyond himself. “One thing we have to do better, we have to be able to shoot from the three,” he said. “So that should be a big focus and point for us. It is another thing to go into a game without having shooters, and just having them shoot it to shoot it because it looks cool on paper, so we have to practice it a lot in October. [But] because the way the game is going now, it is just a shot that your team has to have.”
After a wretched season in which the Wolves yielded the third-highest effective field goal percentage (which counts opponent accuracy in three-pointers and two-pointers) in NBA history, Minnesota will be better on defense — and perhaps much better.
If there is a place where Mitchell deviates most from Flip Saunders, it is in his desire to self-identify with gritty defense. Mitchell pledged to open every practice with workouts aimed at shoring up the defense, understanding at least in this context that focused team-wide repetitions yield improvements.
That top-down emphasis will help. So will better health and continuity on the roster. Gone are the days when the Wolves trot out the woefully undersized front court of Gorgui Dieng and Thad Young, or have clueless matador rookie Zach LaVine initiating the defense on the perimeter.
This season, Andrew Wiggins can commit himself to being rugged wing stopper without the unreasonable burden of playing logging 40-plus minutes per game as the go-to guy on offense. And two other quality defenders on the team — Rubio and Kevin Garnett — will provide plenty of support.
“I never played with a guy who jumped so hard on [pick and roll] defense,” Rubio marveled of Garnett. “I really was impressed with the way he was leading from behind. I was on defense and I heard him yelling all the time, telling us what to do. That felt pretty good, I’m not going to lie. I think we can build from there. He can teach the young big guys how to lead because that is the key to winning games.”
The old clichés about savvy vets mentoring young kids will actually be meaningful on the Wolves this season.
The above quote from Rubio is Exhibit A of KG’s impact on the team. On Monday, Garnett reprised the free-flowing charm he flashed during his welcome-back press conference last season after being acquired from Brooklyn — and before he sat all but 98 minutes during the tanking that blemished the 14-15 season and blessed the franchise with Karl-Anthony Towns this year.
He was funny and voluble, flattering veteran members of the media with his attention, and adopting the skillful mien of calculated irreverence with his answers. He reiterated that he hates playing the center position, but surely knows he will be slotted there, at least defensively, in many situations. And he went out of his way to emphasize that the core young talent on the roster is “great” rather than good.
General manager Milt Newton noted that with Garnett in the frontcourt, Tayshaun Prince on the wing and Andre Miller in the backcourt, the Wolves have top-quality mentorship available to every player and specific position on the roster. It was a pleasure to hear the two-way comments about the potential dynamics of that mentorship.
Bazzy Muhammad — who looked physically ripped and was mentally psyched to the point where his head quivered and his body rocked while hearing questions posed to him — gushed about picking KG’s brain on the sideline during games and the prospect of learning wing defense from Prince.
Towns used the word “champion” about a dozen times while describing what he hopes to glean from Garnett.
On the flip side, the best endorsement of drafting undersized point guard Tyus Jones came from Miller on Monday when he proclaimed that Jones was “way more advanced than people think. I think he’s definitely going to surprise a lot of people.”
Then there was Prince, who oozed thoughtful, soft-spoken dignity during his time on the mic, providing lengthy, contextual answers to most every question. It provided an ideal balance and striking contrast to KG, who burns hot with competitive zeal almost all of the time. For young players better suited to more measured mentorship, Prince (and to a lesser extent Miller) will soothe as he teaches.
Inevitably, roster competition will lead to conflict, in ways that are potentially good and also potentially harmful.
Both Newton and Mitchell left little doubt that the veterans will cede minutes to the youngsters even at the cost of the won-lost record, stating that long-term excellence will trump short-term gains. As Mitchell put it, KG, Prince and Martin “are not going to be here three years from now” and that his priority is “doing right by the organization first…[by] making sure these young guys get a chance to learn how to play in certain situations.”
That is most problematic for Prince, who said that he had spoken specifically about minutes and playing time with Saunders, but had not yet confirmed it with Mitchell. In his carefully precise way, Prince made it clear he felt he could be and should be an effective contributor for 15-20 minutes per game.
But the Wolves are stocked at the wing positions. The most intense competition is likely to come between Martin and Muhammad for the starting slot beside Wiggins on the wing.
Muhammad enthusiastically — and appropriately — talked about how effective the Wigs-Bazzy wing tandem was last season because both players are powerful enough to overwhelm opposing shooting guards. Bazzy noted that he had been concentrating on his ball-handling and honing quick footwork and other aspects of perimeter defense to prepare himself for back court duty.
But Martin will not leave the starting lineup quietly. When it was pointed out that a compelling case could be made for him as both a starter and a sixth man, and then he had previously been successful in both roles, he shot back, “No, there is no compelling case. I know where I’m at. I’m a starting shooting guard. Yeah,” he concluded, shaking his head in disgust that anyone might think otherwise.
Then there is Zach LaVine. It is very subtle, but Mitchell always mentions LaVine’s name at or near the top of the list — sometimes ahead of Wiggins — when he is recounting the young players worthy of special attention and mentoring. For whatever reason — dedicated readers know I don’t share his enthusiasm — LaVine has an influential advocate in his corner. That could affect both the simmering competition for wing minutes and perhaps impinge upon the point guard situation, especially if Rubio’s troublesome ankle isn’t fully healed or functional throughout the season.
We haven’t even discussed 27-year old rookie wingman Nemanja Bjelica, who was only the MVP of the vaunted Euroleague in 2015; or Nikola Pekovic, who can make a huge difference in the low post if his latest foot surgery finally enables him to surmount his chronic injury history. Both were tentative on Monday — Bjelica due to his incomplete command of English, Pek because he’s a realist sick of talking about being hurt. And there was Adreian Payne, ostensibly in the front court mix enough to force Anthony Bennett off the roster, but the recipient of the least interest among the assembled media in terms of questions asked.
Last but not least, the absence of Flip Saunders loomed over the entire day. Strib beat writer Jerry Zgoda asked each player about Flip in the course of compiling a story for Tuesday’s paper, and got the typical yet sincere responses of sadness, hope and prayers in Flip’s direction.
What was learned was the status quo from two weeks ago has not changed. Owner Glen Taylor’s directive that Flip not be contacted by any member of the franchise so that his family’s desire for total privacy be honored continues to hold.
It is a hopeful time in the development of Timberwolves. But the architect of that hope is absent. Hopefully not for much longer.